“Bearing Bad News”
Rev. Jeff Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
June 3, 2018
“For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” 1 Samuel 3:13i
Nobody likes bad news. We avoid it when we can. Most of us don’t like giving it. I never had to fire anyone. There have been a few times when I should have. There was the church sexton who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. He tried to burn down the church by setting an elaborate fuse in the Boy Scout’s storage closet. He should have been fired but he disappeared, never to be seen again, after the fuse was found.
“Samuel, Samuel.” God calls the boy three times and three times Samuel thinks its Eli doing the calling. Can’t blame him. If I had been Samuel, I would have run to Eli, too. There is no one else there. The most logical and likely source of this voice was Eli. And I am not sure Samuel would have ever figured it out. This is what the text says:
Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. (1 Samuel 3:7)
It’s not Samuel’s fault that he doesn’t know the Lord. If anyone’s to blame, it’s God! Remember what the text said? In the second part of the first verse in chapter 3 it says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” So Samuel, who is serving the Lord in the Temple under the tutelage of Eli, was just playing at being a priest. In fact, Samuel had been given to the Lord by his mother, Hannah, as soon as she had weaned him. Each year Hannah would make Samuel a little priest’s outfit. He was a child playing a man’s part. Samuel didn’t really know the Lord he was supposed to be serving. After all, Samuel was only twelve years old when God called to him. But Eli did know the Lord, and when the boy came to him a third time claiming that Eli had called him, Eli knew something was up.
Something was up, all right, and Eli isn’t going to like what God tells Samuel. Samuel has to tell Eli that God is going to follow through with God’s promise to punish the house of Eli for the wickedness of Eli’s sons. It seems they had been skimming off the top of the sacrifices folks intended for God. Samuel now has to bear the bad news to Eli.
This story seems so ancient. It took place so long ago that we might think it quant but hardly relevant to our day and age. But think again. We live in a time when truth is sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, in an age where morals are measured not by the standards of God’s justice but by what is best for me and mine. How we want to hear good news. But in such a time as this there is bad news to be born. We live in a time when the words of Martin Luther King find renewed force: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. Many years ago when the Soviet Union and the United States were perched on the precipice of nuclear annihilation, Steven L. McKinley of Grace Lutheran Church in Anoka, Minnesota, wrote of a personal and pastoral dilemma:
“Certainly one of the reasons I have never imitated (the activists) is that the congregations I have served have typically had enough controversy generated out of their own common life that I didn’t need to go looking for some new cause to stir up the troops. We fight our fights over things like worship schedules…and which hymns we will sing…But at the moment I have the sense that my day may be coming. I am not sure that, in good conscience, I can continue to allow my congregation the luxury of not taking a hard look at nuclear war…I am not sure in what form I will bring this before my people. I am sure that, when I do, I will be accused of being ‘too political.’ I will be told to ‘stick to religion.’ I will be told ‘that the President knows things you don’t know.’ People will get angry. Some may leave the church. This will not make the church council happy…I will say that it seems strange to me that the killing of one person is a moral question (as in abortion), but the killing of millions of people (as in nuclear war) is not a moral question, but a political question…it may well be that what will happen is that we will talk about it for a while, a few people will get angry, a few will be impressed and/or moved, most will be undisturbed. There will be a small storm, but it will pass over, and we will get back to the serious issues of life today like what color to paint the ladies’ room. It may be that I will only succeed in alienating myself from the community or making a fool of myself.” But “I do know that sometimes I have to stand, sometimes I have to speak, sometimes I can no longer duck the burning issues of the day.”
No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but there are times when God will not let us avoid “the burning issues of our day.”
But there is a way forward. Here in 1 Samuel 3:1-20, there is a strange kind of hope. Eli hears the bad news delivered by Samuel from God and in Eli’s response is our hope. Eli knew as soon as Samuel found the courage to tell him, that this message of doom and judgment was from God. Eli did not try to bargain his way out of the retribution that awaited. He did not suggest that God was being unfair, that the judgment was too harsh. He knew that God would not be mocked, that his sons had abused their priestly office, that he had proven powerless to stop them. He knew.
And us? Do we know God’s judgment when it is pronounced? Do we perceive the cynicism of our age and our cavalier approach to the truth? Will we know the voice of God when it is spoken?
We must, my friends; for God is calling over and over again, and we, like Samuel, run to Eli. May our consciences be awakened. May we say as Samuel said so long ago, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Like the message Eli received, God may not offer us what we would like to hear, but God never speaks a word that we do not need to hear. Let us pray….
i 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.